A Revolutionary Vision Drives Afghanistan's Taliban
Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese theoretician of war, wrote that the greatest general is the one who wins a war without ever having to fight a battle.Until last week's bloody defeat at Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan's largely rural Taliban soldiers had confidently sauntered into one heavily defended town after the other in a stunning three-year march to consolidate power. Yet just as total victory seemed in their grasp, one enemy general who, like so many others, first submitted rather than fight, instead suddenly ambushed them.Most Asian and Western governments -- which fear the Taliban as dangerous adolescents if not medieval throwbacks -- are relieved this greatest student movement of all times might now finally start falling apart. The widespread assumption is that ethnic hatreds in ethnically divided Afghanistan will be their undoing. But it may also be one of those defeats that have afflicted every great revolutionary movement on its march forwards.External observers by and large believe the only thing that suggests the Taliban are revolutionary is their odd name, Taliban, which means student. (In Afghanistan, as in many other countries, university students have been at various revolutionary forefronts since the mid-sixties.)In the West, revolutionary still has the connotation of being something coming from a "progressive left" while violent mass movements on the "right" are labeled reactionary. What Westerners overlook is that the biggest upheaval before recent times was a huge revolution on the right: the Protestant Reformation. All its early leaders called for entire societies to make a radical turn backwards to the life of the earliest Christian communities.The Protestant Reformation swept over more than two thirds of Europe before being only partially rolled back by the Catholic counter-reformation. The Talibans too may be rolled back by their enemies who now get a lot of support from surrounding powers. But the biggest difference between the Afghanistan counter-revolution now and the European counter-reformation then is that the warlords and their backers -- unlike the Jesuits organized by Ignatius Loyola -- are bereft of ideas to challenge those of the Taliban.The warlords can't preach freedom or democracy because in their domains neither exists. They can't preach access to a better material life because the most they have is rampant consumerism. They do get support from educated middle classes who favor Western-style democracy, gender equality and pleasure as a legitimate part of public life, and who see the war lords as a lesser evil compared to the Taliban.Not just in Afghanistan but throughout the Islamic world the Islamic rebels -- even those who commit the worst atrocities -- are getting support from rural people and urban poor for whom religion is the framework on which their entire lives depend.A Taliban document started its lengthy explanation of their revolution with the statement that the triad of mosque, imam (guide) and student has been central to the life of all Afghanis for the last 1200 years. "Whether of different life-styles, from cities or villages, all Afghanis are bound to Islam from cradle to grave."Add to their deep religious roots is a revulsion Afghanis feel against the corruption they have so long lived under and the horrors of war they have experienced on a scale few other contemporary peoples have undergone. The peoples of Afghanistan -- whether Tajik, Pashtun, Uzbek or Hazara -- have been ready for a revolution for a long time.Paul Barker, country director of CARE in Afghanistan, is one of a number of foreigners working in Afghanistan who recognize that something other than a medieval inquisition is going on. Of the 1,500 children CARE teaches, Barker points out, close to 40 percent are girls, a higher enrollment rate than in its program in neighboring Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. The reason, he says, is that the program has the "right cultural mix" of ingredients that make it palatable to a conservative rural population."The thing that is difficult for people in the West to understand is that the Taliban are an indigenous Afghan organization building on traditional Afghan values," Barker comments. "These people did not come from nowhere and their ideas are not superficial."But another of their traditional ideas relates more directly to their revolutionary calling. In April 1996 some one thousand Afghani Muslim clerics gave Taliban leader Mullah (Imam) Muhammad Omar the medieval title of Amir-ul-Mu'mineen, "Commander of the Faithful." The first Amir, otherwise called Caliph, was named on the Prophet's death in 632. Only four years later both mighty Persian and Byzantine empires had been defeated by the upstart Muslims. Within a few decades Muslim power extended from India to Spain.The Taliban are Sunni, as are 90 percent of all Muslims. The Shi'i Islam's other great branch, split with the Sunni, a quarter century after the Prophet's death. One reason for the split was the Shi'i disapproval of the militarist expansionism of the Amir-Caliphs.Iran, the biggest Shi'i power, detests the Taliban. Every secular Muslim power, especially Turkey and Uzbekistan, fears them. If the current anti-Taliban counter-offensive fails, then poor, war-ravaged Afghanistan in 1997 will become a beacon to the Sunni Islamic world, just as poor war-ravaged but revolutionary Russia in 1917 was to left reformers, radicals and revolutionaries throughout the world.